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Of purposeful button-pushing

D. N. Bezboruah

Arather important activity at the beginning of the 21st century is the one of having to push buttons for many of our day-to-day needs. Even after the middle of the last century or up to the 1970s, most of what people wanted done had to be stated in rather elaborate verbal instructions that often produced the most unexpected results because the person to whom the instructions were given was often unable to comprehend them in their entirety and was therefore at fault for not being able to carry out instructions correctly. Today, things are quite a bit different because one is often able to record one’s demands and preferences merely by pushing buttons instead of having to give detailed verbal instructions that are confused at times. Today, whenever one rings up for any particular service, one is asked to press button 1 or 2 or 3 and so on for different choices. Quite often this directive creates problems because when one is listening to these instructions the numbers are no longer on display on a cell phone. Even so, having to push buttons in order to make one’s choices has become an inescapable activity in the 21st century.

The business of pushing buttons makes sense only when the buttons pushed take the person to preferred choices, and the preferred choices have been rendered rational ones by a great deal of thought about what people want and what they do not. Today, in Assam we are being compelled to make choices about which we have very scant information. This is quite unfair because no one has the right to compel people to make choices when the choices themselves are not very clear to the selectors. There is yet another facet to the whole business of making choices with the help of buttons linked to electrical devices. It is the very futility of making choices at all in a State that is so badly handicapped by a terrible shortage of electricity about which our rulers and our bureaucrats have done so little. Even in a country like India, there are few States that are as handicapped about the continuous availability of electricity as Assam is.
What is most amusing about the State of Assam is that people should be talking about development even when everyone knows that we do not really have the wherewithal to do so with the State capable of generating only about 269 MW of power. Given the size of the State, and given the time available to step up generation of power in the State, our bureaucrats did nothing over the last 50 years to increase the State’s power potential even though the increase of the State’s population over the years was something that even the layman was aware of. Instead of working towards a healthy increase of the power potential of the State, they let even the existing power projects become inactive over the years. Bongaigaon had four thermal units generating about 240 MW of power that are dead units today. They are due to be replaced with two larger thermal generators of 500 MW each, but no one really knows when this is actually going to happen. Going by past experience, we might well have to wait for five or six years. The thermal power plant of Lakwa too is no longer operational. This is something difficult to comprehend because thermal power generators elsewhere have a much longer life-span than the ones we have in Assam. Assam, which had an installed capacity of 514 MW of power, was down to almost nothing until the Karbi-Langpi hydel project started delivering about 100 MW a few years ago. But the quantum of electricity that we are able to generate on our own—around a measly 269 MW—is not even chickenfeed if we are thinking of any worthwhile development. What planners and policy-makers seem to forget is that today no country or State has any business even to be talking about development if it does not have the requisite electrical power. Today, development is no longer a matter of mere words uttered by ministers and lesser politicians that are left to lesser mortals to translate into reality. The potential of a State’s ability to develop is assessed by its ability to generate large quantities of power or to be able to buy power from elsewhere that will be put to profitable use. In order to sustain even modest ambitions related to development, we need about ten times the power that the State generates. Something like 2,700 MW of power will perhaps see us through for a decade or so if we are not too ambitious about our development goals. This assessment rests on the clear stipulation that there will be concerted endeavours to revive the sources of power (like the ones we had in Bongaigaon and Lakwa) along with frenetic efforts to create newer sources of additional power. Once major power projects that are expected to take off do so (with or despite popular support), we might expect some improvement in the present power scenario. But this will happen without any serious efforts of our bureaucrats except the correspondence with the appropriate authorities of the Centre to make available to Assam a certain quantum of power that some authority from elsewhere will be instrumental in generating in our territory. All that our bureaucrats would be required to do would be to repeat the customary officialese expected to secure the assent of the Centre for a part of the electricity generated in Assam to be made over to the State.

The purpose of today’s column is to drive home the fact that while sizeable quantities of electrical power made available due to power generating projects being located within the State by other authorities of the Union government are a welcome bonus, the fact remains that our officers will have to put in the required efforts to ensure additional generation of power within the State. This is because the golden rule for development in the 21st century is that the available power is never going to be enough for the needs of any State that has development in mind. The generation of anything like 269 MW for a State like Assam is a bit of a cruel joke. And since one hopes that our bureaucrats have begun to realize the role of electrical power in present-day development, one naturally expects the kind of serious efforts that are needed to augment the power generation of the State. The sad story of Assam’s development is that during the last half-a-century our bureaucrats have done precisely nothing about augmenting the generation of electrical power in the State to cope with the increase in population and the increasing dependence of the people on electricity.

There are three modes of power generation if we do not consider nuclear generation which has not caught on in India as it has done elsewhere. There is generation of hydro-electrical power for which the initial costs are rather high, but once the equipment has been installed and run, the running costs are about the lowest of all modes of power generation. And these hydel generators last for decades. I have seen generators in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh that are over 50 or 60 years old, but are still running without any glitches. Almost all of them have earned several times the investment made on them. But it takes some time to get any hydel project going. By contrast, thermal power generators can be set much faster and at much lower cost than hydel power generators. But the running costs are heavier, and thermal units have to be replaced somewhat more frequently than hydel units. The trend now is to go in for solar power, since the cost of solar power panels has been declining quite a bit. However, the problem arises from the fact that one cannot have solar power panels one below the other since every panel has to be exposed to sunlight. A lot of land is, therefore, required to put up the solar power panels that can generate power from sunlight. Assam’s Power department has a target of generating 590 MW of solar power till 2019-20, but the target seems to be a far cry because barring Goalpara, no other district of Assam has been able to provide the land required for solar power projects. What has queered the pitch is that the Assam Power Generation Company Limited (APGCL) has a standing decision of not taking up any solar power projects below a generation capacity of 15 MW. A solar power project with a generation capacity of 1 MW needs 15 bighas of land, and a project of 15 MW capacity needs 225 bighas. This is the quantum of land that no district of Assam except Goalpara can provide. So a shortage of land has decided what modes of power generation we can choose and what we cannot.